This is the sermon I gave at Church of the Saviour Episcopal Church in Clermont, Iowa on August 24, 2008. The question I asked was: Who is Jesus?
In todays readings names have a central role. In the reading from Exodus, the story is about how the descendants of Jacob become the twelve tribes of Israel and how they become enslaved to the Egyptians. One of those descendants is a baby boy who is put in a basket by his mother so he escapes death by the hands of the Egyptians. Well, the little one is found by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh, who will raise him as her child, and she names him Moses because she “drew him out of the water”. The name Moses is very significant because it is a royal Egyptian name, the names of the Pharaohs themselves often have Moses as part of their name because the Pharaohs were considered gods and their power as a god came from the Nile river, from the water. Without the water of the Nile, Egypt would cease to exist. So it is very significant that this Hebrew boy, who was to be a slave, becomes part of the royal household of Egypt and then eventually leads the Hebrews out of Egypt on their journey to the promised land.
In the Romans reading, Paul says we all have names: prophet, minister, teacher, exhorter, giver, leader; to each according to their ability.
Then in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks of his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
I want to ask two questions:
1. What did Peter mean?
2. What does this mean to us today?
1. What did Peter mean when he said “ You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”
The word Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah – which simply means God’s anointed One
There were three types of people who would be anointed:
And in Jesus we find all three.
However, the Jews were expecting a Messiah who would exercise God’s rule over God’s people.
But Jesus wasn’t the all conquering hero that the Jews were expecting, similar to Judas Maccabeus who had kicked the occupying powers out in 167 BC.
Rather he was the suffering servant that Isaiah spoke about.
The last prophet in the Old Testament Malachi prophesied three hundred years before Jesus was born and said this:
"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3:1)
Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah – the one sent by God.
But he recognized more. That Jesus wasn’t just human, but that he was divine too.
For a Jew like St Peter this was, this was a seismic shift in his thinking, to call Jesus the Son of God.
All his life Peter had been taught that there is one God and never to worship a man as God.
It was one of the reasons which caused both the Jewish and Christian faiths to clash with Roman authority – because emperor worship was the touchstone of loyalty to the empire.
And the city where Jesus asked the disciples the question was not insignificant either. For he asked them the question in Caesarea Philippi, a city about 25 miles northeast of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown.
Caesarea Philippi was know for its plurality of religions. In that city alone there were 14 temples dedicated to the worship of Ba’al.
And high up on a prominent mountain peak you could see the ultimate blasphemy for a Jew – a temple dedicated to the worship of Caesar.
The famous Bible commentator William Barclay put it all in perspective:
Here indeed is a dramatic picture. Here is a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter, with twelve very ordinary men around him.
At the moment the orthodox are actually plotting and planning to destroy him as a dangerous heretic.
He stands in an area littered with the temples of Syrian gods; in a place where the ancient Greek gods looked down; in a place where the history of Israel crowded upon the minds of men; where the white marble splendor of the home of Caesar-worship dominated the landscape and compelled the eye.
And there – of all places – this amazing carpenter stands and asks men who they believe him to be, and expects the answer, the Son of God.
So what does that mean for us today?
If Jesus is God’s anointed One and he is divine, then we need to take what he says seriously
Jesus made some startling and very exclusive claims.
For example in the Gospel of John he said: “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)
I often hear people say that “All religions are basically the same – they all worship the same God”.
But I don't necessarily agree. Because Jesus doesn’t leave us that option.
If Christianity is all about following Christ – rather than the common misconception that a Christian is simply someone who is nice and good - then universalism (that is the belief that all religions will bring us to God) is not a Christian option. This does not invalidate other religions, or lead us to judge them, but it gives their path over to God's grace and leads us on a radically different journey.
Why? Because of who Jesus is.
In today’s Gospel reading the question is asked:
Who do you think Jesus is?.
There were a number of answers
Firstly, we have the crowd’s answer in our Bible passage today.
The disciples in answering the question replied:
Some say; John the Baptist, other Elijah and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Why Elijah. The Jews steeped in the Old Testament knew the prophecy from Malachi that Elijah must come before the Messiah would return.
Why John the Baptist? Many thought John the Baptist was the return of Elijah – indeed Jesus himself announces John as a prophet like Elijah.
Why Jeremiah: Because Jesus, like Jeremiah “was a prophet of judgment, declaring God’s impending destruction on his own nation and therefore opposed and persecuted by its leaders” (RT France )
But let us also look at some other answers given over the centuries by famous figures in recent history.
Consider Albert Schweitzer the famous theologian and one of the 113 Swiss Nobel Prize winners; who says, if we don't believe Jesus is Christ, then he was a deluded fanatic who futilely threw away his life in blind devotion to a mad dream.
Then there is the famous writer, George Bernard Shaw, who was also an atheist who said
“Jesus was a man who was sane until Peter hailed him as the Christ and who then became a monomaniac…his delusion is a very common delusion among the insane…”
Or if you ask the question to a practicing Muslim and you will get the answer that Jesus was simply a great prophet , second only to Mohamed and that he was not divine.
But there have been other answers.
Such as CS Lewis
And in his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis made this poignant statement,
"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.
He would either be a lunatic--on the level with a
man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be
the devil of hell.
You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.
You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."
Being a Christian is not simply about being a “good” person.
It is indeed not about who the follower is.
Rather it is all about Him who we follow.
A Christian is a person who has recognized who Jesus is and has then decided to follow him.
As Peter put it: Jesus is The Messiah: the Son of the living God.
My prayer is that, with Simon Peter, you would simply say with every fiber of your being, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
The question I’d like to leave you with today is this: Who do you think Jesus is?
Because your answer, the way you name Him, will affect the way you live your life.